Chapter 29: Old Friend
Between cases, on a morning one weekend the officers’ basic law enforcement examination passed by in a flash. The room was full of officers writing quickly. Zhang Chi eyed the sunlight outside the window, then went back to the familiar topic on his paper. He put down his pen and handed in his exam early.
Exiting the spacious education building and outside into the shade out of direct sunlight, a cardboard box had been placed on a flower bed. Inside were three newborn kittens someone had placed there. They were curled up, leaning on each other and sleeping, snoring lightly, charmingly innocent. He was just about to reach his hand out to pet them when he saw a large cat slowly, but alertly approaching from not far off. He turned and left.
Maybe the air of manliness was too thick here and nature was balancing things out by drawing these stray cats to the campus. There really wasn’t a single dog in sight. It had been there so long there was no telling which generation the police academy cat belonged to.
He had spent two years of his young adult life here. It wasn’t that Zhang Chi had never thought to go back, it’s just it was rather far away. He remembered the first time he came here. The campus was tucked away in an unmarked corner of the map. Far from the city, close to the harbor. One night a few years ago he was running on the track when he suddenly saw a dazzling, resplendent sight, which turned out to be a large ship arriving, coming so close it was like he could board straight from the running track, its lights illuminating half of the campus, startling the clandestine cadets necking in the dark, who hurriedly got up and straightened their clothes. Zhang Chi didn’t envy them. He almost never was without a girlfriend, and even when he was it was because he had chosen to take a break from them.
Back then he never thought that one day, because of a sketch pencil, he’d become a police officer. Now, it seemed that fate had been pushing him, that it hadn’t been his choice to go down that path. Luckily, that path was perhaps better than the one he had chosen for himself.
Zhang Chi followed the unfamiliar, yet well-known little path through the square by the flagpole, and the basketball court, skirting around the swimming facility. When he passed by the shooting range he heard sounds of gunfire he had not heard in a long time, which was muffled as soon as he passed behind a soundproof wall. He felt a surge of emotion. He walked the long path before finally turning in to the instructors’ office at the other corner of the campus. He knocked on the door and entered.
The commander staring at the computer screen turned and got up as soon as he saw it was his student. He smiled and rebuked, “Why didn’t you tell me you were coming”, then affectionately took him into a side office and had him sit down.
They had not seen each other in two years, but looking at each other now it seemed neither had changed.
“You haven’t come to see me. I was just thinking of calling you.” The commander handed him a bottle of salt soda water.
“I’m here, aren’t I?” Zhang Chi laughed and twisted the cap.
“Lately I heard you transfered to the criminal investigation team. Still getting used to it?”
“I don’t know about that. All I can say is I’m doing my best to get broken in. It can be pretty stressful.”
“Your unit really found a treasure. Composite sketches shouldn’t be difficult for you. After all, you have art training. I heard there’s no more than thirty in the whole country in the public security sector who can draw, and some provinces don’t have any portrait artists at all. And many of them are rehired soon after retirement. For a young lad like you just taking up a post, the sky’s the limit.”
“Commander, there’s a reason I don’t have much competition. It’s too difficult. If your portrait has a 60% resemblance to the suspect it’s counted a success, but you need at least 80% resemblance to be able to solve a case. That’s asking a lot. And I just started. When it comes to experience or results I’m nowhere near the masters who’ve been sketching their whole lives. You know how it is; public security work cares a lot about efficiency. Instant results are best. If the sketch fails to help the investigation once or twice, you might not get another chance.”
Though the commander was almost fifty, he still liked new things. He knew about new societal trends before the young people did. At the academy the sports committee member Zhang Chi had opportunities to have a lot of work contact with him. Through these encounters, be it photography, travel, or drawing, he found the two could talk endlessly about many topics, so they naturally became close friends despite the difference in age.
The commander nodded. “I had a little experience with that before. A layman would look at it as just drawing, but actually composite sketching is a comprehensive discipline, including the study of investigation, genetics, anatomy, and psychology. But I believe in you. You’re a fast learner who’s willing to improve, and you have keen insight. You can pick up something quickly that would take someone else a lifetime. The key is, you have to have a plan for what you do. Everything requires some planning to be successful.”
“A lot of people don’t know that using portrait sketches to catch criminals has existed since ancient times; it’s just that no one ever put much stock in composite sketching. Especially now, since there are so many means of conducting investigations, and science and technology has developed so much, a pure sketch doesn’t have much use.”
“But you don’t think so?”
“The way I see it, every method can be useful. Under specific conditions everything has some irreplaceable application. The question is, will you be adept enough when it comes time to use it? There’s not as much use for composite sketches for cases now as there was before 2005 because that’s when video surveillance started to get popular, Still, some outstanding cases and mysteries, including cases with unfavorable conditions for forensic techniques still can’t do without that option.”
“Kid, I never realized you could talk like that. I heard about this recent case overseas involving the kidnap of a Chinese exchange student. Our police used a blurry image from security camera footage to make a portrait, and the guys overseas couldn’t believe it. That’s what’s unique about composite sketches.” The commander stuck his thumb out in approval.
Zhang Chi shook his head. “I’m not that eloquent. I just say what I’m thinking. Lately I’ve been polishing my drawing.”
“Actually, there is something I’d like to ask you,” the commander said, changing the subject.
“If there’s any way I can be of help I’ll do my best.” It was unexpected, but Zhang Chi agreed right away.
“It has to do with drawing.” The commander smiled. “My mother is getting on in years, and getting more like an old child, always reminiscing that she ‘misses mom and dad’. For people of their generation they often only have one photo, which is hard to find. My mom doesn’t have a single memento. I feel really bad about that. I was wondering if you could help grant her wish?”
Zhang Chi seemed reluctant. “Uh, Feng, I knew it was a very difficult assignment as soon as you opened your mouth. Do you have an assistant?”
My mom is the best assistant. She clearly remembers every little detail, and she has really clear enunciation. Even I never saw my maternal grandparents, but I would really like to see what they looked like. To tell the truth, I once used composite sketch software to have a go of it myself, but Mom took one look at it and shook her head. Said it looked like a blockhead, no feeling.”
“Portrait software isn’t what you’d think it would be. Even though it’s developed with the help of many masters, you just can’t rely on a database to piece together a real person’s face. The 3D feel of the face, the slight differences in expression in the eyes and brows, plus the software can’t account for different regional body characteristics of northerners and southerners. So you need a composite sketch artist.”
“So you’re saying you can do it?”
“Eh, don’t get your hopes up. Since you asked me, I’ll do it. But it’s like I just said, it’s a mountain of pressure. A person’s memory changes with time. If just the nose or eyes are off a little it can make a huge difference. I can’t guarantee I can draw it to your satisfaction. But I at least won’t make a simple reproduction, or a copy. I will carefully consider every stroke, and give it my very best.”
The commander was delighted. “Little Zhang, I see you have improved. Not only are you an excellent speaker, you’re quite knowledgable about portrait sketches, and you have high standards. I don’t demand 80%. 60% is enough. Come on, let me take you to the cafeteria.”
The commander swiped his lunch card off the desk and the two went out, laughing and chatting.
The day for posting the exam results arrived quickly. That day, the new recruits greeted their fellow testmates and asked each other, “Did you pass?”
The website for checking the test scores was clogged with traffic for a time, but Zhang Chi wasn’t like the rest, so eager to see the result. He never heard of someone “failing” such an elementary-level exam. If others could pass it, how could he not pass it? He also had that assignment from the commander, that really important sketch. But the other new recruits didn’t think that way. After all, this wasn’t just about face, it also affected whether or not they would have a secure job.
Zhang Chi was shocked by the old lady’s outstanding memory. Two pages of notes were crammed with little details. Her parents’ faces has been carved into her mind. Seeing her talk on and on about it pleasantly, and that eager hope in her eyes, he really hoped he could restore her image of her long-departed parents to give her a little bit of comfort. He also realized, as she was describing their faces, that a woman’s eye for detail often surpassed a man’s. Thinking in terms of images was a bit better; it was easier to to grasp facial features. Maybe in the future he should try to seek out female witnesses?
Combing through all the details in his notebook, the end of his pencil became even easier and smoother as his certainty piled up to become self-confidence. If the age, region, gender, and facial features were all not lacking, and the more concrete the descriptions were, the sketch’s degree of resemblance would be very close. As soon as he finished he took a picture of it and sent it to the commander, and waited for his satisfied thanks.
Zhang Chi suddenly felt relaxed. He picked up his glass of water and swaggered into the adjacent office to chat. Little Wu saw him enter, looked around, and pulled him outside and whispered, “I heard some people didn’t pass the law enforcement exam this year. Everybody’s scrambling to see the results. How come you don’t seem anxious?”
“Can’t load the site, what’s there to be anxious about?”
“It’s working now. Several of them just got through.” He pointed to several young guys in the office opposite. “Don’t take it lightly, that test is really important. If you really didn’t pass it would be a real problem. Hurry up and go check. At least you’ll be relieved.”
Zhang Chi shook his head as he headed back. “You check for me.”
Little Wu stared at him wide-eyed. “How can I do that? Outsiders can’t login. There’s a direct link to it on the internal system from the city council website.”
“I’ve never been on before. You have experience, help me out a little.”
He laughed as he followed him. “You’re really something. Fine, but you owe me one.”